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Poland's 'Return to Europe' Is a Plunge Into Modernity

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The last time I was in the country, near a little town called Gamek, which means "pot," I stayed in an inconspicuous 18th-century farmhouse without running water and electricity that somehow escaped the concrete and barbed wire communist-era remodeling done to most buildings. As Polish cities have quickly become showcases of modern capitalism, villages like Gamek remain what they were. Under communism they seemed like bastions of a regretted past; today they often figure as simple examples of contrariness.

The countryside still preserves old traditions, forgotten dialects, and simple faith - all of which, along with the boredom, cause the young and ambitious to flee to the cities. In Gamek, there is nothing to do: If you tire of the colorful fields, you won't be long amused by the occasional passing horse and wagon. At night, the blue light of television shining from behind the closed remains of house after house bespeaks not openness to the outside world but isolation.

So as Poland returns to Europe, the Polish countryside remains where it has always been, a step behind.

The reforms begun by Solidarity governments (1989-1993) will earn Poland full membership in the NATO alliance, and a chance to negotiate membership in the European Union (EU). After four years of government by former communists (1993-1997), Solidarity regained power in the parliamentary elections last September. Its two branches - a liberal party and a patriotic movement - now govern in coalition, and should complete the reforms they began. Poland has just thanked the US Senate for ratifying the enlargement of NATO, and packed its first negotiators off to Brussels to begin membership negotiations with the EU.

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